A firsthand glimpse of healthy food at its source

Consumers of organic products took advantage of an opportunity last Sunday to talk to people who actually grow the food. Kathimerini English Edition joined a group heading south to Corinthia and Arcadia as part of a series of visits to organic farms, organized by the organic food certification organization DIO. First stop was in Klenia, Corinthia, where Dimitris Sinanos has been growing apricots and olives organically since 1998. He was by no means preaching to the converted. Some of the visitors raised questions often heard from people who would like to eat more healthily but aren’t sure just how different organic products are from the conventionally grown. One of the most frequent queries concerned the likelihood of contamination by chemicals used on neighboring farms. «Each safety margin is set by the inspectors. Then when they come to test the crops and soil for chemicals, they take samples from the outer rows and from a row in the middle. If all are contaminated, it means that the organic farmer is using something he shouldn’t. If only the outside row of trees is contaminated, then it has been affected by spraying next door,» he said. «I don’t have that problem as I have a good relationship with my neighbors. I have asked them not to spray their last row with a turbine but by hand and they have been happy to comply as they respect what I am doing.» Another problem has to do with finding markets for his produce. According to DIO inspector Aris Ilias, the number of organic producers has grown at such a rate that the supply of organic food has outstripped the demand, so better distribution networks are needed. Initially, Sinanos was forced to sell his organic apricots to conventional distributors if he didn’t want to see his produce rot on the ground. Now things are slowly improving and more and more merchants are showing an interest. Another issue was whether farmers have as high a yield as conventional farmers. Sinanos said lower yields are offset by the advantage of having steady harvests. «I have noticed that olive trees which are loaded with chemicals have a cut-off point. One year they produce olives, the next hardly any. With my organically grown trees, I have olives every year on all the trees,» he said. Expense The cost is not so much in the products organic farmers use on their crops but in the labor. «To rid their fields of pests, conventional farmers go to a shop and buy a chemical, spend a day spraying and get rid of anything that moves. They can then rest easy for a few weeks. An organic farmer has to keep observing his crops in order to prevent problems from starting,» said Ilias. Sinanos said the same happens when it comes to getting rid of weeds. A farmer who sprays a herbicide can get rid of weeds within a day, but Sinanos needs labor to mow the weeds mechanically. Sinanos also dispelled the idea that using traps for the olive fruit fly was more expensive than spraying with chemicals. «The pheromone that attracts the fruit fly costs about 0.30 euros per tree, per trap,» he said. Sinanos now makes his own traps out of plastic bottles as he found that the ones on the market were too popular with some people not willing to pay to get their own. «The traps themselves are not cheap – 1.50-2 euros each, which is a lot, especially if you have 3,000 trees,» he explained. «Fortunately even the conventional olive farmers around here – such as the one across the road – have been following my example. People see that these homemade traps are far more effective as they operate 24 hours a day all year round.» The pheromone does not need changing, just topping up once, depending on how hot it gets, in order to compensate for evaporation. The traps stay on the trees until olives are harvested in the fall, then are taken down, cleaned and stored until the next year. Organic wine It was harvest time and work was in full swing at the Repanis vineyards. Nikolas Repanis has been producing organic wine in the Nemea valley, home of some of Greece’s most famous vineyards, for the past five years. Nemea is the home of the Agiorgitiko variety (from Aghios Georgios, the old name for Nemea), which has been given Protected Designation of Origin status. Repanis, a former wine merchant, bought a 50-year-old abandoned vineyard and planted 1.2 hectares with grapes he grows organically. The original farm has grown to 2 hectares; another 0.7 are soon to be added. He also maintains that organic grapes are not much more expensive to grow than those conventionally farmed, although labor costs are higher. «I keep a close eye on the grapes. We use preparations such as sulfur and Bordeaux mix (a copper compound) to prevent disease, but they need continuous observation,» he said. He explained that these non-toxic preparations are used by many conventional grape growers. «Over 40 percent of vintners are producing what are in fact organic grapes even though they have not sought certification,» he explained. Nature’s energy The last visit on the tour was to the forested foothills of Mount Parnon near the village of Rizes, where two years ago farmer Nikos Carras, who had been growing organically for some years, started using biodynamics. (Carras was interviewed about his work by Kathimerini English Edition in the September 22 edition.) His fields are scattered through a magical forested landscape, among stands of chestnuts and pines. He grows cherries, grapes, potatoes and other vegetables. «Biodynamics works with the land just as homeopathy does with people,» explained Carras. «We use extracts of natural substances to help the plant’s immune system recover so it can cope with varying weather conditions, pests and disease. All plants have the ability to resist all diseases. What we do is to help them develop that ability. As a philosopher once said, all diseases can be cured but not all patients.» One of the main components of biodynamic agriculture is farmers’ relationship with their land and the energy they bring to it. «A major factor in that is our energy level as people,» Carras said. «It might seem strange to some of you, but we have to enter the field with our energy ‘clean’ – we shouldn’t be annoyed or anxious. What we do should be done calmly and in full awareness. Energy exists throughout the universe and there have been experiments comparing plants that are treated well and those that are not.» Carras is a mine of knowledge about the plants growing wild in the forest and in the fields and why they are there. He showed us a grove of walnut trees (not on his land) that had been abandoned for some years after being used as a dumping ground for manure from a nearby farm, and had been contaminated with antibiotics and other chemicals fed to the animals. The field is now full of poison hemlock (Conium maculatum, said to have been used to poison Socrates), a plant found wherever there are toxins in the soil and which acts as an antidote. An example of nature – given the chance – healing itself.